HC Deb 13 July 1877 vol 235 cc1269-78

in rising to move— That, in the opinion of this House, facilities for the independent inspection of convict establishments should he provided; and that it is expedient that an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty; praying that a Royal Commission he appointed to inquire into the discipline and management of these prisons, said, that in the course of the discussion on the Prisons Bill the subject had received a good deal of attention, and the right hon. Gentleman opposite, the Home Secretary, intimated his opinion that further legislation was desirable in reference to convict establishments. The Prison Act of 1865 provided facilities for the independent inspection of county and borough prisons by visiting justices, and these facilities were retained by the aid of the Bill which had just received the Royal Assent; but no such provision existed in regard to convict establishments, either for independent inspection, or for placing any check upon the Home Secretary in framing rules for their management and discipline. After careful examination of the various Acts relating to those establishments, he had failed to find any provision for independent inspection, and it had happened from time to time that the complaints constantly made of cruelties inflicted upon convicts had been substantiated. He brought this question, therefore, under the notice of the House in the hope that the Home Secretary would take it into his consideration during the Recess, and introduce a Bill next Ses- sion to correct the defects of the present system. He had known instances in which memorials setting forth the complaints made by prisoners of their treatment had been suppressed, and had never reached the Home Secretary. He knew that the inspection of prisons by the borough justices had not in the past been always very perfect; but, at the same time, he looked upon the provisions of the Prisons Act of this year, requiring the justices to form themselves into prison committees for the purpose of inspection, as very valuable, and trusted that some similar protection would be afforded to prisons in convict establishments. Some impartial inquiry into the management and discipline of convict establishments was absolutely necessary, and a satisfactory result could only be arrived at after hearing witnesses. It was also very desirable that the inquiry should include the medical attendance and diet of the convicts. The medical officers of several convict establishments, while varying very much, some being far more indulgent than others, had reported the diet as too low for the labour required, and the question of the effects of labour on public works upon persons of different classes of prisoners had never been satisfactory dealt with. In particular, the medical officers at Pentonville and Portland had reported unfavourably of the health of the convicts. Hard labour was much more severe upon a man of education not accustomed to physical exertion than upon a working man, and the suffering caused by solitary confinement was much greater in the case of the former than that of the latter, as far as he could make out. But the Home Secretary had power to limit the extent of solitary confinement inflicted upon any prisoner; but he thought that some general rules, both on that subject and in regard to the number of lashes that might be inflicted, should be laid down by Act of Parliament. Prisoners employed upon public works should not be over-fed; but while their diet should be plain and coarse, they ought to have a sufficiency of bread; and it was not creditable to a Government that their prisoners should be kept upon such low diet as to be rendered liable to pulmonary disorders. Being generally men of low vitality, they felt very keenly the effects of an inferior diet. The points he wished to impress upon the House were, first, the necessity for an independent inspection of convict prisons by persons not under the influence or control of the Government, or in their pay. And, secondly, that an inquiry should be instituted by a Royal Commission into the discipline and management of those prisons. Very many complaints had been made of late years by prisoners of ill-treatment. In many cases the complaints had been substantiated, and in some instances the Home Secretary had been induced to interfere; but it was desirable that a Commission should inquire into the whole question, with a view to legislation next Session. He could not give credit to all the tales they heard about cruelties perpetrated in convict establishments, but they knew that in borough prisons cruelties of a very extraordinary character had occasionally been inflicted; and if, in the face of the independent inspection of visiting justices, such cruelties were possible, it followed that cruelties of the same nature were much more possible in convict prisons, which were entirely free from independent inspection of any kind, and in regard to which the Home Secretary was kept very much in the dark. In reference to the subject, he would refer the House to a letter which appeared in The Daily Chronicle under the head of "Experiences of a Turnkey," in which a case of exquisite torture was stated to have been witnessed by the writer in a provincial prison. A prisoner who had refused to sit for his photograph, on the ground that he had not been convicted, had his arms and legs bound tightly to the uprights of a ladder, and in that position was hoisted up by the warders against the walls of the prison, and left so until he fainted. On his recovery he was again hoisted up, and the same thing was repeated several times until he at last gave in. For 10 days afterwards the man was not able to comb his hair or to bend his arm. He (Mr. Parnell) could not say whether this statement was entirely true; but if even a portion of it was true, the Home Secretary ought to direct his attention to the system of inspection both of borough and convict prisons. In convict prisons a prisoner had no means of making his complaint known outside his prison walls. They were forbidden by the prison rules to complain to their friends, and if they made their complaint in a memorial to the Home Office, that document was not allowed to reach the hands of the right hon. Gentleman. On a former occasion the Home Secretary brought forward statistics in which a comparison was made between the death rate in convict prisons and that of the London population, with a view to show the healthiness of the prisons; but it was well known that a very large amount of the London mortality was among infants, and there were less deaths among the adult population. It was, therefore, not correct to draw such a comparison between a population containing a number of children and a number of adult persons. The hon. Gentleman concluded by moving an Address for a Royal Commission.


in seconding the Amendment, said, that the hon. Member for Meath (Mr. Parnell) deserved much credit for the great attention which he had devoted to this subject, and the earnestness and ability with which he advocated independent inspection in convict prisons. He (Mr. Whalley) was aware from his own personal knowledge that great dissatisfaction existed with respect to the treatment of prisoners in some gaols. Take, for instance, the case of a convict to whom he had often referred, and who was now confined in Dartmoor. He had received communications from many persons discharged from that prison, but being unauthenticated he had not troubled the House with them, or even communicated with the Home Office. Those statements were most startling, and if true showed the existence of corruption and complicity among the prison officers, and presented an array of difficulties which rendered it almost impossible for any one wronged to obtain redress. The prisoner to whom he alluded was not allowed to make his treatment known to the public. His friends, when they visited him, were only allowed to see him in an iron cage and in the presence of a warder. If a man on whose behalf at least half a million of people had petitioned the House could be ill-treated by prison officials, what must be the condition of other unfortunate convicts who had no means of making their grievances known? His letters were tampered with, and he was not allowed to utter a word of complaint to his visitors. His treatment latterly had been more harsh than formerly, and it was therefore either too lax at one time or was too severe now. The Town Hall of Birmingham had been filled by persons who went there to listen to him (Mr. Whalley), and yet such an expression of public opinion was ignored by the Press. One would have supposed the Home Secretary would have desired to alleviate the painful anxiety of so many persons, and to compassionate their weakness by allowing access to the convict on the part of one of the jury, who lived in a condition of anguish because he believed there had been a miscarriage of justice.


called the hon. Member to Order, reminding him that he was frequently wandering from the Amendment he rose to second.


said, if he was not in Order, the warmth of his feelings on the subject must be his excuse. The hon. Member went on to complain that the Home Secretary had not paid any attention to the complaints of the person to whom he referred, and was proceeding to read a letter addressed by the convict in question to Mr. Guildford Onslow, when—


rose to Order, and pointed out that his conduct was not the subject of the Amendment before the Chair.


submitted that the conduct of the right hon. Gentleman, so far as it illustrated the question before the House — namely, whether there ought to be an independent inspection of convict prisons—was a subject to which he was justified in referring. He contended that ample grounds had been shown why the House should adopt the Amendment of the hon. Member for Meath.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the Question, in order to add the words "in the opinion of this House, facilities for the independent inspection of convict establishments should be provided; and that an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that a Royal Commission be appointed to inquire into the discipline and management of these prisons,"—(Mr. Parnell,) —instead thereof.

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."


said, he would refer to an instance that had come under his notice, which ought to have influence with the House and the right hon. Gentleman. An application was made to him by Mr. O'Donovan Rossa to visit Chatham Convict Prison from the then Home Secretary (Mr. Bruce). An order was obtained, but with certain restrictions, and this order he refused, unless he was permitted to put questions to the prisoner as to his treatment. This was granted. With the late hon. Member for Waterford (Mr. Blake) he visited the convict in prison, several of the prison officials being present. A question was put to O'Donovan Rossa as to whether he had been manacled for 35 days with his hands behind his back, and being compelled to take his food in that condition, one hand being loosened. It was denied by the deputy governor and the turnkeys that he had ever been manacled for such a time and in such a manner; but the chaplain was forced to admit that he had seen the prisoner with his hands tied behind his back. A book that should have thrown some light on the circumstance was not produced, and finally, after a second visit, an inquiry was instituted by the Home Secretary, and the statement of O'Donovan Rossa was found to be quite true. He could but support the Motion, and all suspicion of ill-treatment would be removed if there was an opportunity allowed for prisoners to make their complaints known in convict prisons, as they would be in borough and county prisons by the Prisons Bill.


said, that all this was but a repetition of the discussion on the Prisons Bill, which had now happily become law. He regretted that cases were so often brought forward in that House which had not been sifted, and which could not therefore be denied. Let him take the case brought forward on a former occasion by the hon. Member for Leicester (Mr. P. A. Taylor), who read a letter giving a description of cruel treatment in a prison close to London. It was not possible for the Secretary of State to give any answer to that charge at the moment. A full inquiry was, however, made. The whole matter was fully sifted, and a letter from the director of the prison was shown to the hon. Member for Leicester, who expressed himself fully satisfied with the explanation given. The truth was, that the writer was suffering under mental delusion, and that this was the origin of the charge. The hon. Member for Meath (Mr. Parnell) had brought forward some anonymous charge published in a newspaper in the North which he (Mr. Cross) was unable to answer. It contained a long description of what was supposed to have occurred in the prison, and the hon. Member had founded arguments upon it.


I should not have mentioned this matter but that, I believe, the attention of the right hon. Gentleman was directed to it.


said, that was so; but he thought it unfortunate that a description in an anonymous letter of what was supposed to have taken place in a prison should be read to the House before the matter was sifted. He had not been able to ascertain the name of the writer, but he hoped that information on the subject would be forwarded to him. At present he knew nothing of the matter, and therefore could not argue upon it, but he had no doubt an explanation would be forthcoming. With regard to inspection, there was already, under ordinary circumstances, an inspection of county prisons, and there could be no reason why there should not be an inspection of convict prisons. They were going to establish prison boards for borough and county prisons, which would work with the visiting justices, and rules would be drawn up for their guidance. It would then be seen how they worked together, and he should have no fear for the result; nor should he have any objection at the proper time to the appointment of persons who should have the power to visit convict prisons. His opinion was that nothing was gained by the concealment of anything done under authority. If there was anything wrong, by all means let it be put right. He would not, however, accept the Motion of the hon. Member for Meath. He was willing at the same time to say that this question should be carefully considered in the course of the Recess. He could not throw this duty upon the visiting justices. They had already a good deal to do in the inspection of county prisons, and he could not ask the visiting justices of a particular county to undertake this task in addition to their present duties. He trusted, however, that some machinery might be found under which persons might visit the convict prisons with something like the authority of the visiting justices of county prisons. He hoped that with that assurance the hon. Member for Meath would leave the matter in his hands, at all events, until the next Session of Parliament. He could not entertain the second part of the Motion, because it amounted to a direct censure upon Colonel Du Cane, the Director of Convict Prisons, in whom both himself and his Predecessors felt the greatest confidence. He stated in the debate on the Prisons Bill that it would be the duty of the Home Office to institute an examination into the treatment of all the prisoners in county and borough gaols. That inquiry, which must be instituted by a Commission, must extend to the convict prisons as well. When the information obtained by that Commission was before the House, there would be ample opportunity of judging whether any and what alterations should be made in prison treatment and discipline. There was, therefore, no reason why an independent Commission should be appointed, to inquire into the same thing. When the House met next Session he hoped to convince hon. Members that they had ample information before them to enable them to come to an accurate judgment. With regard to the complaint of the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr. Whalley), he must remind him that it would be extremely invidious for the Secretary of State to say that one prisoner should be treated differently from another on account of his social station. All prisoners, whether rich or poor, must be treated alike. He could assure the House that it was not likely he would forget the prisoner at Dartmoor, because he was so often reminded of him. He had made special inquiries as to his health and the way in which it was affected by his treatment, and he had received assurances from those in whom he felt the fullest confidence that there was nothing in his treatment to justify the slightest complaint. In consequence of the debates on the Prisons Bill, he thought it wise to visit many of these prisons, and he had been in four or five of them. He had made it a practice to see the prisoners alone in their cells, and in one prison he saw all the prisoners. He did all he could to get complaints out of the prisoners, in regard either to their food or treatment, and the answers he got were entirely satisfactory. The only complaints in one gaol were two in number. A prisoner complained that, although his food was good, he could not get enough of it; and the second complaint was that a prisoner said he had a book on geography, and they would not allow him to have the maps. These were the only complaints he could screw out of the prisoners. [Mr. PARNELL: Were these convict prisons?] They were. One was Millbank and the other Pentonville. He also visited some of the Public Works prisons. The result of his inquiries was that the general management of convict prisons was satisfactory, and this would be the opinion of the House if they had examined the subject in detail.


who had been 18 years on the Surrey bench, said, the visiting magistrates of that county made it a rule to see each prisoner alone, and to ask whether he had any complaint to make.


suggested, for the consideration of the Government, that greater uniformity of management might be secured if convict, as well as borough and county prisons, were placed under the control of one Board of Commissioners.


said, the subject had been repeatedly discussed in the debates on the Prisons Bill, and that his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had expressed it to be his opinion that it would be better to try the new system, before any steps were taken to proceed with such a consolidation as that proposed on the lines of the old.


said, he was glad that the Home Secretary had made a concession; but he pointed out that the inspection by these Commissioners, as suggested, would not be an independent inspection, and these Commissioners would be looked upon with more or less suspicion, as prisoners would think they might play into the hands of other officers. The present system had a tendency to encourage the bribing of turnkeys.


said, that as the right hon. Gentleman had consented to the principle of an independent inspection of convict prisons, and had expressed his intention of extending an inquiry to convict prisons, he would withdraw his Motion; at the same time he hoped that the Board of Inquiry would be composed of men independent of Government.


said, he did not see how they could be perfectly independent, as their appointment must be from the Crown; and he wished to explain that what he had said was, that he did not see why, if there was to be an inspection of borough and county prisons when they became Government prisons, there should not also be the same for convict prisons. It was, however, difficult to manage, and he must have time to consider. There must be a Commission, and, indeed, the names of the Commissioners had been submitted for approval to consider the whole discipline of borough and county prisons; and this inquiry would extend to convict prisons.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Main Question, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair," put, and agreed to.